One pleasant reward of writing for an online magazine like the one you are reading right now is the wide reach that it provides and the feedback that the author receives from readers across the globe. In response to a two-part article on Gowalmandi and two of its children born on the opposite side of the political divide, this author received a disturbing email about a Partition massacre that chilled his bones and shook his soul.
The email was from Dr. Pritam Rohila, a neuropsychologist settled in Oregon, USA since 1967. He hails from Ropar, now called Rupnagar, in India. He wrote to say that he was 11 years old at the time of Partition and witnessed the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Muslims in 1947. He has written about the incident in indialife.us. He remembers the gory incident in some detail, and its memory has not faded in his mind even after passage of 75 years.
This author has read many tragic incidents of 1947 carnage and has heard grim tales from his elders who themselves went through this ordeal. Amrita Pritam’s ‘Aj aakhan Waris Shah noon’, Manto’s ‘Khol Do’, ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Mishtake’, and ‘Mozail’, Khushwant Singh’s ‘Train for Pakistan’, Krishan Chander’s ‘Ghaddar’ and Abdullah Hussain’s ‘Udaas Naslain’, among others, amply depict the insanity that gripped the masses at that time.
This story by Dr. Pritam Rohila, from someone who witnessed the massacre in all its gory details, brought to life the tragedy in full force. It also recalled to mind the massacre by a group of Muslims of a Sikh convoy that was migrating under, supposedly, the protection of Bahawalpur State troops, from Rahim Yar Khan to India in the same timeframe.
This article is a tale of these two massacres. One, of innocent Muslims trying to flee from their homes in India, to an unknown fate in Pakistan. The other, of innocent Sikhs leaving their homes in Pakistan, to an unknown future in India. As the readers go through the details, they would note the many similarities between the two incidents. On both sides, the victims were scared, innocent and unarmed civilians including women and children, who were trying to flee away to the safety of their new nation. Both convoys were betrayed by armed guards who were entrusted to protect them. In both cases men were killed, and in both incidents, women were abducted.
At the time of Partition, Pritam and his family lived in the town of Rupnagar on the River Sutlej. A canal emanates from the river at this place to supply water to the Sirhind Canal. It is a large canal that flows south and then south-west to irrigate vast areas of Sirhind, Patiala and several other districts of southeast Punjab. Rupnagar lies in the alcove formed by the river and the canal. A road on the right bank of the canal, connects Rupnagar with Sirhind through Morinda. The population of Rupnagar city in 1947 would have been nearly 20,000, with several thousand more in the large number of villages around the city. The exact Muslim population at that time could not be traced out for Rupnagar but, as elsewhere for eastern Punjab, a 30:70 ratio would be fairly accurate. That puts the number of Muslims in Rupnagar at 5 – 6,000.
As for most of India, in Rupnagar too Muslims and Hindus-Sikhs lived in separate streets and areas. Again, as in the rest of Punjab, Muslims had separate villages. Of, course, most streets and villages had a small number of minority community as well.
Seventy years later, Pritam continues to be tormented by the tragic memories of what he had witnessed that day. To atone for that grim day, he founded the Association for Communal Harmony (ACHA)
Pritam remembers that the two communities did not dine together – due to, he notes, Muslims being non-vegetarians. He also remembers, and as told to this author by his elders, that the two communities had separate water dispensers and there were separate Hindu and Muslim water-stalls at railway and bus stations. This author, too, has noted in an earlier article the role of caste and untouchability in driving the two communities apart. In Rupnagar, as in the rest of India, Justice Sir Abdur Rahim noted in 1925-26 that by only crossing a street in any town of India, members of one community found themselves in an alien land.
The Rohila family lived very close to the Muslim neighbourhood on the edge of Rupnagar city and in close vicinity to some Muslim villages. They lived in a double-storey house that provided a clear view of the neighbourhood. For several nights, as the August 1947 Partition approached, they could see from the rooftop of their house that gangs of rioters were setting Muslim houses on fire. They also heard reports that the neighbouring Muslim villages were being looted and set ablaze. Soon, homeless and uprooted Muslims started pouring into Rupnagar in search of security. The small population of the town swelled by several thousand internally displaced Muslims.
By then, it had been decided by the two Governments that there would be exchange of population in Punjab. To be fair, given the vitriolic social conditions and people’ desire to migrate to the safety, they had few viable choices. The Princely States too arrived at the same conclusion.
Unfortunately, there was no neutral force to ensure the safe passage of refugees. Some had to travel through hundreds of kilometres of hostile territory with unreliable railway staff. The police and Royal Indian Army had been infected with the hatred prevailing in the land. While the British troops in the British-administered territory provided protection for the immigrants, some of the worst atrocities were perpetrated in the princely states where state troops either let the rioters take on the helpless migrants or themselves partook in butchery and plunder. For the Muslims, Patiala in the lower Punjab between the Yamuna and the Sutlej, Kapurthala on the left bank of the Beas at its confluence with the Sutlej and Faridkot in the Ferozepur District were the scenes of some of the worst sufferings. The only Muslim State in Punjab was Bahawalpur, where, too, atrocities took place against Hindus and Sikhs, but not on the scale seen in the Sikh states across the border.
Meanwhile, Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan had started trickling into Rupnagar, with their own sorrowful stories of violence, kidnappings and dislocation. They were also in search of lands and housing to settle, which would only become available if the Muslims were ejected and forced to migrate. The security environment of the city started to deteriorate rapidly. One day, the Hindu families heard a rumour that they would be attacked by the neighbouring Muslims. Pritam’s family, as indeed others, filled glass bottles with nails and lime. They could be filled with water and hurled at attackers: a sort of poor man’s Molotov cocktail.
The Muslims, however, were feeling extremely vulnerable. One morning, an officer of the administration informed them that non-Muslims were planning to attack them, but he didn’t have the resources to protect them. He told them that they will be moved to Sirhind to board trains for Pakistan. The few Muslims who lived in the Hindu areas started moving to the Muslim areas. And the killings had already started. From the window of their house, Pritam saw in his own street some Muslims hacked to death during their attempted escape.
One morning, from his rooftop, Pritam saw Muslims of Rupnagar leaving their homes and walking by the bank of Sirhind Canal, to an outdoor temporary camp outside the town. They had been given a short warning to leave while many of them were in the middle of their breakfast. They had no time to gather their household goods or their valuables. It seemed to the Rohila family that the Muslims had been gathered at one place to ensure their safety, which may have been the case initially. However, subsequent events pointed to a horrible conspiracy. As the Muslims left their homes, mobs of Hindus commenced looting their vacant houses.
A large section of Muslim population of Rupnagar and surrounding villages, numbering about 2,000, had gathered in one place. They had to stay a few days at this temporary refuge. Pritam doesn’t remember, but apparently those few days were peaceful for them.
Sirhind is 40 kilometres from Rupnagar and another 220 kilometres from Lahore. The road route from Rupnagar to Sirhind, through open country, was vulnerable to attacks by Sikh armed jathas (bands) that roamed around the countryside, looking for migrant convoys to plunder. A 2,000-strong slow-moving caravan, at least half a kilometre long, on a narrow canal road with a few bullock-drawn carriages, would have been an easy target. A limited police or military escort of questionable affiliation would have been utterly insufficient for its safety. Under similar circumstances, as narrated by professor Kanwaljit Kaur of Punjab University Patiala, in his book “Communal Violence in Princely States during Partition – 1947“, scores of girls were snatched away by marauding Sikhs from a Muslim convoy travelling on foot from Kapurthala to Jalandhar only 10 kilometres away. Those who tried to protect their women were injured or killed. By the time the convoy reached destination, Kanwaljit reports that all girls and women had been whisked away.
Coming back to the tragedy in Rupnagar, a few days after the refugees had gathered in the temporary camp, a squad of the military came along to escort them to Sirhind, from where they were to board a train to Lahore. The escort had no Muslim element, which may have alarmed the refugees but they, as yet unaware of the perils lying ahead, were relieved at moving one step closer to the safety of the new nation. Pritam and his elder brother followed the crowd out of curiosity.
Having walked a little distance, they reached a fork in the road. Here, as if on a cue, the military personnel suddenly disappeared. Gangs of Hindus and Sikhs, armed with knives, sticks and machetes, appeared from the adjoining fields and surrounded the caravan. They were hurling invectives and indignities, and started slashing and hacking at the convoy. Victims ran in all directions to escape the attackers. In the process, they dropped their meagre belongings, which were grabbed by the people following them. Many frightened and screaming Muslim girls were dragged away from their helpless families and spirited away by the attacking crowd. It was a sickening sight.
As the larger segment of refugees dashed away in the direction of Sirhind – still a considerable distance away – a group of fleeing Muslims peeled off and broke away along a dirt road. They were pursued and surrounded by the attackers in a rain-soaked muddy field. The petrified Muslims backed away, ending up in a huge heap of live human beings. The jeering attackers had them surrounded from all sides and pulled them down. The victims were hacked to death one by one. Limbless and bleeding corpses started to pile up. On the side of one pile, one man, who had lost both his hands in the process, begged to be put to death. Pritam’s elder brother, shaken up by the gory scene, lost consciousness and fell on the ground.
Some of the Muslims – Pritam doesn’t know how many – ran away and were able to escape to Sirhind, and then onwards to Pakistan. Much later, Pritam briefly corresponded with one of them; a cloth dyer that the family had befriended. Pritam remembers that the gentleman used to bring sweets for Rohila family on the occasion of Diwali. He had come back for a visit to the shrine of Mujaddid Alf Thani in the northern outskirts of Sirhind; a shrine that his family had revered for generations.
Seventy years later, Pritam continues to be tormented by the tragic memories of what he had witnessed that day. To atone for that grim day, he founded the Association for Communal Harmony (ACHA). In 2004, he and his wife joined a delegation of non-resident Indians and Pakistanis from Canada, UK and USA for a peace and goodwill visit to Pakistan and India. They met the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, and also Sonia Gandhi, head of the Central Congress Working Committee – requesting them to jointly install a memorial at India-Pakistan border at Wagah for the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim victims of Partition. Sadly, the petition still lies unactioned.
This author, as part of the first generation of migrants born in Pakistan, also feels that the loss of so many innocent people should not go un-mourned. A memorial, or joint memorials, would apply some sort of closure to that massacre and help overcome the painful memories of our past.
In the second part of this article, the story of the massacre of the Sikh convoy, as stated above, will be narrated.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com